Automation can improve workplace safety but vigilance is still a must

Omron Electronics Pty Ltd

By Harry Mulder, Engineering Manager, Omron Oceania
Friday, 14 August, 2020



Automation can improve workplace safety but vigilance is still a must

As industries begin to rely more heavily on automation, the general consensus is that new technologies are helping to improve workplace safety.

By implementing robotics and automation, manufacturers can boost productivity and drive efficiencies. Automation is freeing employees from repetitive, unsafe and potentially hazardous jobs, enabling them to conduct higher level tasks. With advanced technology, workers can be shielded from temperature extremes and radioactive or toxic environments. And automation can reduce certain types of worker injuries, such as those typically associated with repetitive upper arm motion and lifting.

In modern workplaces robots are being used to handle heavy loads and for repetitive pick and place tasks, and with advanced software, industries can process large amounts of data for preventive maintenance. Users can now determine when machinery is likely to fail based on machine run times and exceedance of optimum operating parameters.

But new technology brings new types of risk.

Without the appropriate planning, robots and automated processes can create new hazards, resulting in other types of injuries — sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Machines are not always equipped to make intelligent decisions. This problem may be further compounded by poorly designed user interfaces.

Risks and hazards

Employers have a duty to inform employees about the risks and hazards associated with robotics and automated machinery. For instance, it is a common belief that collaborative robots (often referred to as cobots) are easy-to-integrate machines that can work seamlessly alongside human workers. However, this doesn’t necessarily make them exempt from the safety regulations associated with regular industrial robots.

Many plant managers mistakenly assume that all unguarded cobots are perfectly safe for use alongside their employees: after all, they are ‘collaborative’. But this simply isn’t true.

Deploying a cobot safely requires a comprehensive risk assessment. The assessment should consider all the risks that may occur while the robot is in operation, performing the tasks required of it, as well as the potential risks when the cobot is between tasks.

It is imperative that users understand the safety requirements of all new automated systems. Studies have shown that a heavy reliance on automated processes may result in changes in human behaviour, including increased complacency. Because a system is functioning satisfactorily, some employees mistakenly believe it is not necessary to closely monitor the entire process. Such complacency can lead to accidents.

How to reduce risk of injury

It is vital for industries to closely examine human–machine interactions. Employees must be properly trained and adequate guarding provided for automated machinery to reduce potential injury rates.

Operations executives must anticipate the variety of new tasks that may be required of employees following the installation of robots or other types of process automation. They also need to be able to assess any new risks to employees associated with their changing roles.

Such changes may create different types of safety and health issues for workers designated to operate new machinery or continuing in their current roles working alongside robots. Some employees may move into new roles that are more complicated or even physically strenuous to perform or monotonous. This could lead to increases in work-related musculoskeletal disorders, mental fatigue, higher error rates and a deterioration of overall quality.

Another critical issue with automation involves failing to allocate sufficient space for humans and automation to co-exist. Businesses must ensure sufficient work space is allocated to allow humans to work safely with machines.

Protecting your most important asset

So how do industries balance human worker input with increased automation to produce quality, consistent work while also ensuring employee safety?

With production machinery increasing in speed and complexity, it is paramount that machine safety is incorporated to protect your most important assets (you and your workforce). As enterprises respond to the challenge by expanding their use of automation, they need to sharpen their focus on how these investments will impact worker safety and health.

The advantage of automation is that it allows for the application of Functional Safety (IEC 61508), where safety is implemented by electronic means. This usually means a microprocessor-based system is used to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

By choosing reliable and effective automation systems, a safer factory can still be flexible and adaptable. A wide variety of input sensors and switches are available to detect potentially hazardous conditions, safety-rated controllers to execute logic and programs and output driving devices.

Further regulation may also be essential to help prevent automation-related safety incidents.

Regulatory bodies must work diligently to keep up with new technological advances in the workplace.

Learn how to identify hazards

Machine safety within manufacturing is mandatory and employers should keep abreast of all the latest developments. Manufacturers must find innovative safety solutions to improve their operations. They must know their responsibilities and how they can minimise risk. They must also learn how to identify hazards and know how to reduce them. The formal procedure for this is called a risk assessment (ISO 12100:2010).

By taking steps in advance to understand the potential benefits and carefully assess the risks associated with automation, manufacturers will be well positioned to maximise the productivity, performance and sustainability of these initiatives.

Top image: ©stock.adobe.com/au/zapp2photo

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